BMW vehicles have a fairly cyclical existence when it comes to pricing. Positioned as a luxury vehicle, their prices start high before depreciating rapidly. Then, generally in ten to twelve years, the values reach their lowest level. But, like other desirable antiques, prices are starting to rise again. Sometimes quite quickly and at values equal to or greater than their original MSRP – as in the curious case of the vaunted 1M. Since the terms “classic” and “affordable” are both quite subjective, we’ve come up with goals that most will hopefully find enjoyable. Collector car insurance extends to vehicles that are at least 15 years old, so we’ll be looking at BMW vehicles that are fifteen years or older. We’ll set a budget of $15,000 – a nice chunk of change, sure, but generally within reach for those looking for a fun vintage automobile.
E82 BMW 1 Series
Admittedly, the closest thing to owning a modern BMW while remaining classic, you’ll probably have to make a few concessions if you want to slip behind the wheel of one of these great little cars. The naturally aspirated 128i offers old-school BMW joys like a naturally aspirated straight-six (the N52), good for 228 horsepower and an available manual transmission. The more powerful 135i uses the N54 (pre-2010, anyway) and is in every way the Junior 1M you hope.
Unfortunately, prices have recently increased for coupe versions of these vehicles, even the first ones that hit the 15-year limit. A decent 128i is certainly doable, but it lacks the frenetic fun that the turbocharged 135i provides. A convertible in good condition is within the price range but offers a heavier weight which tarnishes the experience somewhat. Either way, it’s one of the last – and best – truly classic and still affordable BMWs you can buy.
E39 BMW 5 Series
The fourth generation of the BMW 5 Series is often hailed – usually in legendary M5 form – as one of the best sedans ever made. While you won’t find an M5 near our budget (at least not the one you’d want to own), you can find a range of 528i, 530i and 540i sedans, even with a manual transmission. Of course, most enthusiasts will want to go with the V8-powered 540i, but the six-cylinder versions run great and offer a bit better fuel economy and are still fun to drive.
The E39 5 Series also got a touring model, which even got a V8-powered variant. Unfortunately, no manual was offered in the United States. But that’s okay – the E39 5-Series offers most of the looks of the M5, a considerable amount of steering feel and responsiveness, and half the cost to repair. That makes it a great choice for a vintage BMW that won’t break the bank.
E46 BMW 3 Series
Like the E39, the E46 represents the fourth generation of an iconic nameplate, and for some it’s the best version. It also has iconic and classic BMW looks and proportions, communicative handling and charismatic powertrains. You might even find a 330i equipped with the ZHP Equipment Group, which included a slight power bump, unique body trim and other small tweaks that make it the pinnacle of non-M E46 fun.
BMW has produced tons of these for the North American market, so prices are likely to remain stagnant for some time. You’ll pay top dollar for a blank on a site like Bring a Trailer, but you’ll have no trouble finding even a well-equipped 330i within your budget.
E36 BMW 3 Series
The E36 3 Series is a fan favorite and offers classic 90s styling, excellent steering feel and a variety of body styles that add to its charm. From the 318ti hatchback to the 328is, the E36 is old enough to be a bit light while still retaining modern amenities like automatic climate control and cruise control. Plus, the E36 is the most analog vehicle on the list so far, making it a good choice for DIY enthusiasts.
Although my pick from the E36 range is definitely the sporty 328is, you really can’t go wrong with anything in the range. It is becoming more and more difficult to find a car in good condition with the 2.8 liter engine (328i and 328is) within our budget, but they are there. For optimal cooling: Import a 328i Touring, which pairs the beefy 2.8-litre straight-six (M52B28) with a manual transmission.
E36/7 Z3 Roadster
The E36/7 Z3 Roadster picks up where the standard E36 Coupe, Sedan and Convertible leave off. It’s objectively better to be a driver’s car, with lighter curb weight and smaller bulk. It offers similar engine choices to the E36 – ranging from a 1.9-liter four-cylinder to a 2.8-liter six-cylinder. The Z3 also has the interesting distinction of being the first BMW model ever made exclusively outside of Germany – hailing from Greer, South Carolina.
The Z3’s polarizing appearance means it’s not the first thing you think of when someone mentions a vintage BMW. However, I see this as a positive and contributing factor to the Z3’s asking price remaining reasonably stable. You might even find a Z3 M roadster in our budget under $15,000, although it has higher mileage and/or needs work. Either way, the Z3 represents some of the best driving dynamics this side of an M car, and it should never be overlooked as an excellent choice for an affordable classic BMW.